Devin Silvernail always starts with the basics: Read your lease, and know exactly what’s in it before you sign it. Document everything. Do everything in writing (and no, texting does not count). That’s the “tenant rights 101” many of us know.
But did you know that there’s a ban on source of income discrimination in Seattle? Or that landlords are prohibited by law to screen tenants based on criminal convictions? Or that there’s a cap on move-in fees for renters can be charged? That you can organize in a renters union in your building?
In the grand scheme of things, not that many people do. Silvernail, who organizes Tenant Rights Bootcamps all around Seattle, thinks they should. That’s why he’s made informing renters of their rights part of his life’s work. “Knowing your rights is a really powerful tool,” he says. “You can recognize when a situation isn’t good when you’re unjustly evicted or taken advantage of, or owed relocation assistance.”
When we get Silvernail on the phone, he’s out walking around Capitol Hill — where renters, including Silvernail himself, are the majority — posting bright yellow flyers up for an upcoming Tenant Rights Bootcamp this Wednesday, March 6 at Capitol Hill’s Wildrose bar. The event, geared towards the LGBTQ+ community, is co-organized with the Gender Justice League, the Tenants Union of Washington and Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant who is running for reelection this year.
“A lot of LGBTQ+ folks wonder about background checks. If folks haven’t had the same name their whole lives, how does that affect them? Can their landlord refuse them? We can quell fears around that, as well as around discrimination and protected classes,” Silvernail says while the stapler clicks punctuate his words.
“Still, 99% of the workshop will apply to anyone, and open to everyone who wants to come.”
Since launching on the Hill in early 2017, Silvernail has organized over 30 Tenant Right Bootcamps around the city, from Southeast Seattle, Rainier Beach and the Central District to the University District and Ballard, mostly in collaboration with local organizations such as Gender Justice League, Tenants Union, and Tenant Law Center.
The boot camps are the “homelessness prevention arm” of his nonprofit Be:Seattle, which he started in 2016 after moving back from San Francisco, where he’d helped organize renters rights workshops as well as experienced housing instability himself. Be:Seattle also advocates for businesses to offer small services to the houseless as well as sidewalks pantries in Belltown, the U-District and Capitol Hill.
“We’re a scrappy nonprofit,” says Silvernail. “We don’t have huge grants or large city contracts. We rely on people power and donations.”
Late last year, the nonprofit received a $6,000 “eviction and housing habitability research” project grant from the office of Council member Sawant. Since late last year, Sawant’s office has been supporting the boot camps in her district, District 3, and across the city. Sawant’s office provides both logistical support, which includes volunteers and organizers, as well as “political input” during the meetings. Though Silvernail says he describes the input as “help in guiding tenants on how to interface with City Hall.”
“We think these boot camps are the best uses of council resources,” says Sawant, who will be attending the Wildrose meeting. “I don’t spend money going to retreats hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. We spend our money organizing with ordinary people.”
“There’s a two-fold objective,” Sawant, chair of the Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renter Right’s committee, explained of the symbiosis between her office and the Tenants Rights Bootcamps. “To bring renters together and discuss the difficulties facing them, empower them with as much knowledge as possible so they can defend themselves and put them in touch with city resources. The other part of the objective is to get renters organized to win further victories: a full tenants bill of rights, build a movement for rent control and socially-funded affordable housing.”
As she prepares for a reelection fight, Sawant has stepped up her efforts in District 3. Last week, Sawant rallied around the Central District’s Section 8 housing Chateau Apartments and a plan to redevelop the property. Another rally is planned for March 16th.
Silvernail and Sawant say the willingness to organize is palpable. Silvernail draws the comparison to what he saw in San Francisco: “In SF it was: ‘I have an immediate problem and how do I get help’ or ‘how do I ensure this never happens to anyone else ever again?’ Seattle’s going in that direction.”
Another thing he sees here that he saw in San Francisco a couple of years ago: “People living with a ton of roommates, while Seattle used to be one of the loneliest places in the country because everyone was living alone.” This trend affects renters in that tenant relocation assistance is often denied when roommates’ income is counted together.
“Now, people are starting to say: This is bullshit. Let’s change it. First, people were curious. Now they are curious about taking action.”
Case in point: of the past six boot camps, Silvernail says, three have kickstarted the formation of tenant unions, including tenants of a senior-only affordable housing project and a Somali housing community in West Seattle.
Sawant says that many people come to the boot camp with the intent to get organized: “At the recent boot camp at Vermillion, we had several people halfway through the presentation ask: ‘When are we going to get to the organizing part?’”
The big, unifying issue, Silvernail and Sawant say, will be rent control. Just last week, the nation’s first statewide mandatory rent control measure became law in Oregon. In Washington, rent control is illegal under a 1981 state law. “[the Oregon measure] was a huge victory for tenants,” says Silvernail. “We’re going to talk so much about that.”
How? “By starting small. Doing boot camps. Organizing into tenants unions in your building. Linking up with other organizers. Linking these small movements together. Emailing legislators, showing up to committees. Building a movement. It’ll be a slow journey, but one that builds over time.”
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